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dvd between the lines

Setting Up for Success:
Preproduction Pointers

Mark Waldrep

EMedia Magazine, October 2000
Copyright © Online Inc.

C onsumer demand for highly interactive DVD-Video titles has taken an aggressive upward turn in recent months. Check out recent releases from the major studios and you'll know what I mean. Entire disc sides are being dedicated to "special features." What seemed cool several months ago now seems limited and unimaginative by current standards. As directors and other creative players in the movie business begin to embrace the format as a natural extension of their work, the production value of DVD-Video titles is rising. The major motion picture studios now realize that making compelling DVD-Video releases can dramatically increase sales, and they have joined in the efforts to improve the quality of their products. The additional demands for higher degrees of interactivity and production extras make planning and executing a DVD-Video production more critical than ever before. Gone are the days of templates and "cookie cutter" DVDs. The consuming public may be willing to rent simple DVD-Video titles for a single viewing, but when it comes to purchasing titles, they'll opt for those that contain large amounts of behind-the-scenes extras and bonus features.

Clients across a wide spectrum are becoming aware of the potential of the format and seeking development partners that can push the limits of DVD-Video and make their productions stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Whether it's dedicated featurettes, extensive motion graphics, video transitions, or trivia games, the "special features" section of any DVD-Video project requires careful preplanning and a detailed specification document to ensure a satisfied client and successful project. Different production companies create different versions of a specification document, but the essential functionality of this document is always the same. It serves as a "blueprint" for all members of the development team including graphic artists, video editors, audio engineers, compressionists, and authoring specialists. Clients also require a version of the specification document to communicate among their associates (and possibly another client) and to commit to schedules and budgets. Let's examine several approaches to creating a comprehensive development document.

When AIX Media Group first started creating DVD-Video titles over three years ago, we laid out each project using the tools that we became familiar with during our years as CD-ROM developers. Using Adobe Illustrator or a similar program, the producer would create an "interactive map" of the overall project. The non-linear nature of computer and DVD-Video players means that the traditional notion of script had to be modified to accommodate new types of productions. An easy-to-read interactive map communicates both a hierarchical flow and the associated inventory of media assets required to produce the disc. Today, we use a modified version of these early maps as the "bible" for internal and external coordination. Color-coding identifies motion graphics versus static menus, video transitions are designated by arrow-tipped connection lines, and file names for all media are attached to each node or box placed in the program flow. The size of a particular interactive map depends, of course, on the scope of the project, but even the simplest project should have a map. Most movie titles can be laid out on an 11" x 17" piece of paper. However, a recently completed corporate kiosk required a trip to the local Kinkos to print out a map over 8 x 6 feet!

It may seem that the interactive map is created after you've secured a specific job, but that may not necessarily be the best sequence. Some clients have some background in developing interactive products and may have already drawn a thumbnail version of their desired interactivity. If a job is an upgrade or revamping of a previous version done as a CD-ROM or CD-i, there may be an existing map that you can get your hands on.

An interactive map is not the only document necessary to produce a compelling DVD-Video title. Obviously, a lengthy voice-over script could not coexist in the graphic layout described earlier. Text elements are written and laid out in script format using a word processing program. Any onscreen text intended for navigation or menu choices is also organized using text software and grouped screen-by-screen so that graphic artists never have to touch the keyboard to type anything. By simply copying and pasting from the approved text document, errors are kept to a minimum.

A final document type can augment an interactive map and supply additional information required by specific departments. A spreadsheet "master asset inventory" is often developed that lists every piece of media required for a specific job. The columns identify the item number, filename, media type, functionality, navigational response, timecode location, hard disk storage location, version number, approval status, and person working on the item. The production coordinator updates the master inventory daily. The spreadsheet is used internally to track the status and location of every asset, and allows the producer to get a snapshot of the progress of any job.

Whatever system you adopt to handle complex jobs, be willing to modify it as you get more experience. The suggestions presented here have worked very well for titles with a few screens and have been invaluable for jobs requiring hundreds if not thousands of media elements. The trick is to spend a lot of time carefully planning using paper so that you don't have to waste resources when you're working in more expensive media.

Mark Waldrep (mwaldrep@aixmediagroup.com) is the President and CEO of AIX Media Group, an international company specializing in the innovative use of emerging technologies such as DVD and the Internet. He is also a professor in the Division of Performing and Media Arts at the California State University at Dominguez Hills.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.


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